Travel agencies in countries across the Middle East and Africa said the United Arab Emirates has temporarily halted issuing new visas to their citizens, even as the Gulf state allows Israelis into the country visa-free following the normalization deal between the two countries.
Confusion over the unexplained UAE visa ban targeting 11 Muslim-majority nations, in addition to Kenya, swirled after a leaked document from Dubai’s state-owned airport free zone surfaced this week, declaring restrictions against a range of nationalities.
Emirati authorities have not acknowledged the suspension that comes as the UAE welcomes Israeli tourists for the first time in history, the coronavirus pandemic surges across the region and those searching for work in the federation of seven sheikhdoms increasingly overstay their tourist visas amid a cascade of business shutdowns and lay-offs.
Citing an order from the country’s immigration authorities, the note to companies operating in Dubai’s airport free zone announced a pause in issuing all new employment, long and short-term visit visas “until further notice” from countries including Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, Yemen, Syria, Libya, Iraq and Tunisia, without offering a reason. Those already holding visas would not be affected, it said.
Israel’s Foreign Ministry announced on Monday that Israel and the UAE have agreed on a plan that will allow Israelis to travel to the Gulf nation even before a mutual visa-waiver program comes into effect.
The two nations, which established formal diplomatic relations in September, have signed and ratified the visa-waiver program. However, it will only go into effect 30 days after both countries send each other official missives about the program.
The Foreign Ministry said it handed such a missive to its Emirati counterpart on Monday, without saying whether the UAE ministry had done the same.
Until the program takes effect, Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi and ministry officials asked Abu Dhabi for an interim solution for visa-free travel, the Foreign Ministry said.
They agreed that Israeli airlines will be granted permits to enter the UAE for all Israeli passengers on their flights via an electronic process.
Israel’s cabinet on Sunday ratified the mutual visa exemption agreement. The ministers voted unanimously to approve the treaty, which was signed in Tel Aviv last month. The UAE government reportedly ratified the agreement on November 1.
The UAE-Israel visa exemption agreement will mean that citizens from both countries will be allowed to enter each other’s countries without having to go through the hassle of applying for a visa first.
It is the first such arrangement between the Jewish state and an Arab country. Notably, even Israel’s closest ally, the United States, has so far refused to sign a visa exemption agreement with the Jewish state.
On Thursday a flydubai plane landed in Dubai from Tel Aviv with some 200 Israelis on board for the return leg of the first commercial flight to Israel by the UAE’s state-owned airline. The Emirati budget airliner is offering twice-daily flights between the two cities.
The revelation that the UAE was blocking travel from other countries has gripped social media feeds and news outlets worldwide, underscoring the UAE’s global status as magnet for expat workers and visitors who outnumber locals nearly nine to one in the country.
Travel agents in Pakistan said the UAE has barred single men under the age of 50 from the country, although those traveling with family can still obtain visas. Last week, Pakistan’s foreign office said it had “learnt that the UAE has temporarily suspended the issuance of new visit visas” in a move “believed to be related to the second wave of COVID-19.”
Bestways Travel company south of Islamabad was skeptical. “With such specific age and gender limits, obviously this has nothing to do with the coronavirus,” agent Jamchit Agha said. He said it was more likely tied to security concerns, or fears about young men overstaying visas to find jobs in Dubai, the region’s financial hub. Dubai relies on millions of low-paid expat workers from Southeast Asia.
Several travel companies across Afghanistan also claimed the UAE had stopped issuing visas to citizens, without offering any explanation.
In Kenya, speculation has spread that the country landed on the UAE’s blacklist over a spate of fake certificates showing negative results on coronavirus tests used to travel to the UAE, resulting in 21 arrests Thursday.
Two travel agents in Lebanon, a country that has sent legions of skilled workers to the UAE as its own economy plunged, confirmed visa applications were currently on hold except for those with a foreign passport or residency in a third country.
Travel agents in Damascus have struggled over the past two weeks to understand why Syria had been removed from a list of countries eligible to apply for visas online.
Iraqi Foreign Ministry spokesman Ahmed al-Sahaf said Iraq has not been officially informed of an Emirati travel ban against its citizens, but the country was aware of the reported blacklist and is following up through diplomatic channels. An employee at Dubai’s budget airline, flydubai, in Baghdad said the company was taking far fewer visa applications, pending instructions expected next week.
Saeed Mohammed, an agent at Arabian Nights Tours in Dubai, said he frequently faces difficulties obtaining UAE entry visas for Iranians, Turkish citizens and those from Yemen’s rebel-held capital due to simmering political tensions.
Despite long-standing visa troubles, Mohammed said he’s never seen the 100% visa rejection rate of the past week, with some dozen visitor visas denied each day from Yemen, Iran, Turkey, Afghanistan and other countries.
One travel agent in Istanbul said she wasn’t at all surprised by the ban, especially given the UAE’s growing trend of rejecting Turkish visas over the past few months — the result of a political rivalry, not the coronavirus, she added.
Israel’s national carrier El Al said Monday that, starting on December 13, it will operate 14 weekly flights to Dubai, including three on Sundays and Thursdays and two on other days, presumably excluding Saturdays.
Prices will start at $299 (about NIS 1,000) per ticket, the company said, with premium tickets starting at $599 (more than NIS 2,000) and Business Class tickets at $899 (NIS 3,000 and change).
During a visit to Israel by Bahraini Foreign Minister Abdullatif bin Rashid al-Zayani last week, Israel and Bahrain — which have similarly recently normalized relations with US mediation — signed an agreement allowing citizens from each country to apply online for a visa to the other country by December 1.